Seanad debates

Wednesday, 2 June 2004

Report on Seanad Reform: Statements.

 

11:00 am

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Donegal South West, Fianna Fail)
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I will be brief because I came here today to listen. I take this opportunity to compliment Senator O'Rourke, Leader of the Seanad and chairperson of the sub-committee, Senator Brian Hayes, Leader of the Fine Gael group, Senator Dardis, Deputy Leader of the Seanad, and Senator O'Toole, co-ordinator of the Independent group. I thank them for giving of their time and producing a comprehensive report. I also thank the Cathaoirleach and the House for inviting me here to partake in the discussion on Seanad reform and to carry forward the debate on the composition, functions and future of Seanad Éireann.

The sub-committee's report, which was published last month, succinctly sets out the many views which were expressed and also a coherent and comprehensive package of recommendations for further consideration and action. A range of issues has been considered by the sub-committee during the past 12 months and its report contains many far-reaching and groundbreaking recommendations.

This review is only the first step in what I am confident will be a progressive and extensive debate on how these recommendations can be considered in practical terms and implemented. Given the importance of the review and of the broad acknowledgement of the need for reform of the Seanad's role and responsibilities, it is only correct that we should consider in this debate the steps to be taken to advance these recommendations in a timely and constructive manner.

I commend the sub-committee on the openness of its consultation process. The latter is evidenced by the many views expressed by a range of bodies, representative groups and, in particular, members of the public who took time to submit their opinions. It is fitting that at a time when political commentators are heralding the decline of public interest in politics, there should be such a positive response from members of the public who spent time and effort on making their views known to the sub-committee. This interest and participation in the debate demonstrates that far from being a remote and mysterious institution, the Seanad is valued as a vital component in our democratic process and that it can continue to develop its relevance and value as a parliamentary institution. A broad spectrum of views have been expressed on the issue of the composition of the House and proposals put forward regarding new arrangements for the election of Senators, ranging from a radical reform of the vocational panel system to allow for wider enfranchisement to the introduction of direct popular elections for some or all Seanad seats.

I came here to listen to the views of the Members who will contribute to this important debate and I look forward to hearing them. Tá an-áthas orm bheith anseo inniu le héisteacht leis an díospóireacht thábhachtach seo faoin Seanad agus beidh lá eile le freagra a thabhairt do na ceisteanna a cuireadh.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State and his officials. This is a historic debate. When the current Seanad was elected two years ago, there was cross-party consensus about the need for the House to examine the issue of Seanad reform and bring forward proposals. It is encouraging that we have managed to produce this report less than two years after the most recent general election and that, by and large, it has cross-party support.

I thank the Leader for ensuring this will be a rolling debate which will last a number of days. It is important that every Senator should contribute to the debate on this report. If colleagues speak, as I encourage them to do, rather than just being critical, they should put forward alternatives. The notion that we can continue without any reform and that there should be no changes whatsoever is nonsense. I encourage people to state their views during the debate.

I thank the various members of the sub-committee with whom I served, namely, Senator O'Rourke, the Leader of the House, Senator Dardis, the Deputy Leader, Senator O'Toole, co-ordinator of the Independent group, and Senator Ryan who, unfortunately, could not stay the course because of another matter which arose. However, we appreciate Senator Ryan's work during the six to seven months when the sub-committee sat. We were served by an excellent secretariat led by Peter Finnegan, a member of the staff of the Houses, and his deputy, Eugene Crowley. At very little cost, we have produced an excellent report and I congratulate the civil servants involved who played a major role in that regard. I also wish to pay tribute to Dr. Michael Laver for his expertise and his work with the sub-committee, which proved to be invaluable.

Why is the report important? There have been 11 reports in the past 50 years on reform of the Seanad but there has been virtually no reform. It is now time for action. The report is also important because there has been substantial cross-party agreement on many elements of the reform required. In a sense, the report is a bottom-up response. Many parties from different backgrounds have agreed with the recommendations put forward. The report is also important because it is realistic and balanced. The reforms set out are achievable and are not pie in the sky. They are not so wide of the mark or impractical as to make them irrelevant. These are practical, sound measures that can be implemented.

The most important reason for the issuing of this report at this time is that we are two or three years away from a general election. This Parliament is now mid term and now that we have this report it gives us a realistic and workable road map for achieving many of its recommendations. This report has not come out at the end but in the middle of the life of the Seanad. The Government and our group leaders have an obligation to take it on and deliver tangible reform.

Another reason the report is important is that we have had widespread consultation, as alluded to by the Minister of State. The public consultation last summer discovered a wealth of interest in this House and in our parliamentary democracy. People wanted to put their views on the record and had views in respect of how this House could be reformed to make it more modern and up to date with the challenges posed by society. We must tap into this broad public support for the notion of Seanad reform.

Why is this debate which we will have over the next few weeks important? We must remind ourselves that our mandate as Senators comes, ultimately, from the people, who are an essential ingredient in all parliamentary life. This debate is also important because people, by and large, want to be included in the decision as to who become Senators. The most tangible way we can effect Seanad reform is to give people the power to vote to elect people to the House. This is already available in respect of the university panel, from which Senator Quinn was elected. A substantial number of people are graduates and elections to the university panel work well because there is a popular mandate. In respect of my panel, I was elected by local authority members. Members elected to this panel are also supported by a mandate.

The majority of the population has never been asked its view or had the opportunity to contribute to the election of Senators. We must tap into support for the notion that these people should be allowed to vote for Senators. People want a commitment from this debate that Government and other parties will take the ball and move it in the direction of reform. This report should not remain a document which gathers dust on a shelf. People want to see reform.

Like the turkey voting for Christmas, the fundamental question is why a Senator would support reform which might ultimately lead to the loss of his or her seat. I understand this is a concern for those on both sides of the House and among all groupings. People want to retain the status quo and are concerned that if the situation alters radically, people will lose their seats. My response to that concern is that if we do not shape reform now, it will be shaped by someone else. We have the opportunity to come up with the kind of reform that is workable, practical, realistic and can garner widespread public support. Now, because we are in the middle of the life of this Oireachtas, we have the opportunity to shape that reform.

Our parliamentarians have new tasks and duties many of which are not carried out fully. We have far too much legislation which is not being sufficiently tested or scrutinised. I make this criticism of myself and everybody else. We must be honest and admit we are not doing the job set out in the Constitution to scrutinise legislation. Both Houses have new tasks which must be addressed. We cannot be afraid of reform because if we do not shape the body of reform, others will shape it for us. People tapped into the prevailing cynicism at the previous Seanad election and asked how it was possible such an important institution of the country could be elected virtually without any recourse to the people. This is something we must address.

Many important aspects of this House give it great credibility. It is less party political and less theatrical than the Dáil as a result of the traditions that have grown in this House which ensure it is less partisan. The Dáil is in a sense a massive theatre of public opinion. While this House also reflects public opinion, people do not work here with the same kind of tunnelled vision or party political bias as in the other House. This is a huge advantage we must tap.

One of the most important advantages of this House is that all Stages of a Bill are debated in the House. This means all 59 Members except the Cathaoirleach, can contribute on all Stages, an advantage the other House does not have. The Dáil also suffers from time constraints that do not exist in the Seanad because of our unique situation. Another great strength of this House is its mixture of voices. We have leading industrialists, people from the world of commerce, from the social science area, from the world of academics, from the local authority base and people who have lost Dáil seats etc. This mix of experienced people is important and lends itself to proper scrutiny in the House.

The problem for this House is that it is totally subservient to the Dáil. This was clearly set out in the report we issued approximately a month ago. Another major problem is that the House lacks legitimacy because the majority of the population cannot vote to elect Senators. Some people are of the view that the university seats are elitist and that not all graduates can vote. Others hold that it is wrong that graduates can vote while others cannot. Also, while this House is supposed to represent vocational groups, it does not, as everybody knows. The various bodies that nominate Senators cannot vote. It seems a bizarre notion of democracy that groups can nominate people but not participate in the vote and this should be changed.

The key challenge is not to recreate the Dáil, which is directly elected by the people, but to have the Seanad review legislation with a greater mandate and do important new jobs which are not being done currently in our parliamentary life. Let us all agree with the view that came from the committee. Nobody suggested the Seanad should be abolished or that it does not play an important part in our parliamentary system. This was the overwhelming view of the consultation groups. People believe the Seanad plays a vital role, but they want reform.

I will go through the recommendations briefly. We propose that the Seanad would have 65 members, or 64 if as we propose the Cathaoirleach would be automatically returned at the next election.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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We know one person in favour of that.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Fine Gael)
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We suggest that 32 Members would be directly elected by the people at the same time as local and European elections, half-way through the life of an Oireachtas. We suggest that the other 32 would be indirectly elected. Some 20 would be appointed or elected by local authority members because we feel it is important to keep the link between councillors and this House and 12 would be appointed by the Taoiseach of the day after a general election. Of the 32 directly elected, 26 would be on a PR list system throughout the entire country and six would be left for what we describe as a new higher education constituency.

The situation has worked well with regard to university seats. If people wish they may remain in that sector. However, if one is a graduate and wants to vote in the graduate constituency, one would vote in the new constituency of six seats, whereas other members of the public would vote in the 26 seat constituency under a PR list system.

We suggest that 12 Members would be nominated by the Taoiseach, two from Northern Ireland representing the two traditions there. Certain regard must be given by the Taoiseach to groups under-represented in our society to ensure their views are represented in Parliament. We suggest that there would be a rolling renewal of this House in that 50% of Members would be elected on the same day European and local elections are held and the other Members would be elected after a general election to the other House. In effect, we propose an end to the vocational nomination system. We suggest that former Taoisigh and Tánaistí would be entitled to attend but not vote in the Seanad because of their particular experience in Government and the wealth of experience they have built up over time. Their contribution would be useful to this House.

We have proposed new functions for the House, work that has not been done by any Member in either House of the Oireachtas. There should be a formal consultation stage for legislation, allowing for submissions at that stage rather than Bills coming before the House without proper consultation. The House should have a particular role in EU affairs to provide that proposals which go to Council from the Government would be scrutinised better in the House. We propose a particular role for MEPs and a particular role in reviewing national policy and examining how it is delivered by State agencies.

There should be a greater linkage between this House and the social partners. There should be much greater scrutiny of the North-South Ministerial Council and the North-South bodies, which could be done by this House.

We suggest there should be proper scrutiny by this House of a proposal from Government for senior appointments made by both Houses of the Oireachtas. This suggestion does not in any way undermine a Government decision but seeks to ensure that a person who will obtain a very high post would be subject to questioning in this House to ensure that person is up to speed and suitable for the job.

We suggest the Leader of the House should be entitled to attend Cabinet, given that whomever that person will be, he or she will have to defend the Government on regular occasions. We propose that preferably the Leader would be a Cabinet Minister to give this House the standing it needs.

I could speak for another 40 minutes on this issue but the time allocated does not permit me to do so despite the fact that I have proposed the Cathaoirleach be returned automatically at the next election. I commend the report to the House. I ask colleagues to give it a fair wind. At the end of this process we do not want another report gathering dust; we want one that will deliver reform and gain new credibility for the House and ensure its integrity and durability in the years ahead.